Attempting a new take on superheroes was never going to be an easy premise for a novel. At the moment popular culture seems bogged down with characters with extraordinary abilities… and I don’t just mean my child’s seemingly extraordinary ability to sing the Spider-Man theme tune for about 10 hours a day when the only bit of the song he knows is the word “Spider-Man”. A fresh take is exactly what V.E. Schwab is attempting with Vicious and to a large extent she is successful.
Eli and Victor are university roommates, bound together by an interest in science and unknown to Eli, the love of the same woman. When Eli becomes convinced he’s found a pattern for people becoming EO’s (ExtraOrdinaries), he ropes Victor in to test his theory. Their attempts yield results but not in the way they had expected, and the consequences are devastating.
Ten years later Victor is on the warpath ready to get his revenge on Eli at all costs. A chance encounter with a young girl with a chilling gift leads him to the start of building a squad but Eli is not working alone either and with the former friends very far from meeting any definition of hero, collateral damage is inevitable.
On the plus side, Schwab has come up with some pretty creative abilities for her EO’s and strong reasoning behind why each one has the abilities they have. Her characters are very interesting and she does well to write a pubescent character that is believable and not at all annoying. As all the characters have ended up with varying degrees of moral “flexibility” as a result of how they developed their abilities, none of them are really particularly heroic, which gives the different take Schwabis after and creates a kind of realism with regards to human nature that is largely absent from superhero tropes. The EO’s in Vicious don’t have some great noble purpose, their missions are largely personal and to some extent petty.
The narrative jumps around in timelines constantly, which really takes some getting used to… maybe a little too much getting used to. Initially I felt like the pacing was off and things were developing way too fast. This made more sense as I got further in and got more backstory. Sticking with it was worth the payoff but Schwab takes a pretty big gamble with this structure and only just about pulls it off.
I loved the cliff-hanger ending and will definitely be picking up the sequel Vengeance in the new year.